Australian banks complain of too much cash as 'people don't want it'

·2-min read

Banks in Australia have complained they have too much money because no one wants it and the "problem" is set to get worse.

With the country struggling to recover from a coronavirus-inflicted recession, the authorities have poured billions into the economy, cut interest rates to a record low, and introduced a wage subsidy scheme.

Further steps to stimulate credit demand are in the pipeline, including scrapping "responsible lending" laws and the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) poised to cut its interest rate again to just 0.1% and increase its bond buying, which will inject more money into the economy.

But bankers argue they do not need the extra cash.

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Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd boss Shayne Elliott said "There's all this liquidity flushing around and I don't have much productive use for it, because people don't want it.

"Money is essentially free today. Making it more free doesn't really change anything."

Announcing a 40% slump in profits, Mr Elliott added: "It actually becomes a bit of a problem because it... becomes a drag to our margins."

Net interest margins, a key gauge of profitability for banks, have already shrunk from more than 3% in early 2000s for the four major lenders, to just above 2% now, according to official data.

Banks say another rate cut and more money from the RBA are unlikely to increase credit demand.

One reason people are reluctant to borrow more is that Australia's household debt-to-income ratio is at a record high of near 200% compared with a median level of less than 150% for 22 advanced economies.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, credit growth in Australia shrank as workers and businesses hoarded cash and banks became more risk-averse, with repayments on nearly one in every 10 dollars in their loan books frozen under forbearance schemes.

Although there are signs of recovery, with signs of economic growth, the overall outlook remains bleak, with business failures expected to rise and unemployment likely to remain high for a long time to come.

Joseph Healy, the chief executive of specialist business lender Judo Bank, said: "Liquidity is not the problem at all.

"The big banks are overwhelmed by the challenges of dealing with their existing customers, so they have been much more cautious in lending to new customers."